CSI: NY – Stella vs the Tropes

I’ve posted before about how the writers of CSI: New York have handled stories involving Stella. The most recent episode I’ve seen, “The Thing About Heroes,” is another example – it finishes a couple of running arcs through the season – and includes what I found an excellent exploration of a couple a common tropes in stories about women.

First is the “next relationship after the psycho.” For a few episodes, Stella has been courted by Drew, a man she’d run into at a coffee stand. He’s been sending her presents at the office – things like a bungee cord with a note asking of she “could fall for a guy like him” – the kind of thing that is often presented in romcoms as romantic. Stella, though, finds it creepy as hell. But on the other hand, Drew is giving no indication that he feels this entitles him to anything, and after her last boyfriend tried to kill her, Stella is also distrustful of her instincts. Because when a woman distrusts a man’s advances after being violated and hurt by another man – especially when both are Men Like Us – the trope goes that her judgment has been warped by this prior aberration, and the new man gets to fix her. But why shouldn’t the experience have *sharpened* her perception? After all, men get to learn from their trauma – but the assumption is that while experience can improve a man’s judgment, it only clouds a woman’s.

Then Mac, the team’s wise and protective patriarch (who *is* wise and protective), thinks Stella should take the chance. So she does, and Drew seems to accept her wish to take things slowly and cautiously, and obeys her moratorium on more gifts. But the arc doesn’t follow the course of Mac being right, Stella being broken, and Drew being her repairman. Stella’s right.

Second is the “woman used to get to the man.” During the season, Mac as been stalked by an anonymous caller. It turns out that this is Drew, who wants revenge on Mac for a childhood incident involving the death of Drew’s bother (which he blames on Mac). He’d
been trying to date Stella to get a line on Mac and his team – but had to adjust his game, because she didn’t tell people that kind of stuff just because she dated them – and Stella is the one who makes the connection between Drew and Mac’s stalker. While the whole team contributes to solving the case, and Mac gets the climactic shot, he would have wound up dead if it weren’t for the fact that Stella was not just a piece in Drew’s game, but a player.

For me, Stella is a great example of how the feminist handling of character and story doesn’t hinge on – as feminists are often accused of wanting – a list of things you can’t do to female characters, but on whether the characters remain their own selves rather than accessories to men or to events. In the last year’s worth of episodes, Stella has been attacked and beaten by a man who thought he owned her, investigated as suspect after killing him, had the trauma of it leave her mistrusting herself, possibly been infected with AIDS, and used as a means to hurt Mac. That’s a longer catalogue than any of CSI’s other women have faced. But she faces every one of these things resourcefully – and who she is always remains a driving force, never a driven one – and she is always Stella, never a generic or abstract “woman.”


  1. Fiona says

    I know this was posted over a year ago, but I’m just reading it now. I wanted to let you know I enjoyed the analysis of the episode and of the character. I only ever catch the series in reruns, and CSI:NY is the one I see re-run the least often. This illustrates what a shame that is.

    One of the other things I love is that Stella and Lindsey have expressions of friendship that don’t relate around their status as women, but about other interests and concerns, and that the women’s primary identities are as investigators, not as “the chicks” of the series.

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